By John Gehring
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
While it’s generally not worth spilling any ink over Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator whose daily deluge of paranoia, racism and faux populism pollutes our airwaves, his recent attacks on churches that preach “social justice” has rightly earned the condemnation of diverse faith leaders.
In case you missed it, Beck recently said this on his radio show: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”
Mr. Beck, who could be inhaling too much chalk dust from his blackboard, views social and economic justice as “code words” that obscure a sinister agenda once sought after by both Communists and Nazis. Even after leading Catholics, evangelicals and mainline Protestants immediately lined up to remind our gentle scold that seeking justice for the poor and most vulnerable is not some ideological agenda rooted in lefty politics but central to Biblical values and specifically the Gospel teachings of Jesus, Beck came out swinging.
When more than 30,000 Christians (and counting) responded to Rev. Jim Wallis’ call to write to Mr. Beck and “turn themselves in” as social justice Christians, the implacable host turned his rhetorical guns on Rev. Wallis and the good people at Sojourners: “So you go ahead and you continue to do your protest thing, and that’s great. I love it. But just know — the hammer is coming, because little do you know, for eight weeks, we’ve been compiling information on you, your cute little organization, and all the other cute little people that are with you. And when the hammer comes, it’s going to be hammering hard and all through the night, over and over…”
Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and culture editor at America magazine, has pointed out with his usual wit and wisdom that Mr. Beck is, well, off his rocker. Watch him on the Colbert Report reminding viewers that social justice is central to Catholic teaching and deeply connected to Christian values. The Catholic Church has been speaking about social and economic justice since at least 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical on capital and labor that began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching. In 1919, the U.S. Catholic bishops recruited Monsignor John A. Ryan, a Catholic priest from Minnesota whose writings on economic justice, labor and social inequality were widely read in the decades following World War I, to write their Program for Social Reconstruction, a document that Jesuit scholar Joseph M. McShane, S.J. credited with launching “the American Catholic search for social justice” in earnest. The program called for what at the time were dramatic social reforms: minimum wages, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed.
Last summer, Pope Benedict XIV released a timely encyclical on economic justice, labor unions, international development and environmental exploitation. Benedict delayed its release to more adequately address the global economic crisis. The finished product is, in part, a critique of free-market fundamentalism that left neoconservatives scrambling to downplay passages that take a skeptical view of unfettered markets. Indeed, the pope goes where many U.S. politicians fear to tread in his call for a more just distribution of wealth, robust financial regulations and the essential role government has in serving the common good. If the pope were running for political office in the U.S., you can imagine the attack ads blasting him as a socialist.
I imagine that Mr. Beck might be more comfortable with “charity” than he is with “justice.” Charity is a response to the immediate needs of people (hunger, for example). The pursuit of justice involves changing the social structures that perpetuate poverty. The late Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously summed it up: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint,” he said. “But when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” Both charity and justice are essential principles that must coexist together, not as competing claims on our conscience. When confronted with the moral scandals of poverty, war and racism, Christians are called to ask “why” and set about building something more equitable and humane.
As for the antics of Mr. Beck, most Christians will be sticking with their church and tuning him out.
John Gehring is the Director of Communications for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.